Pulling Together


A Type Mismatch Error

Listening to an Identity Politics activist on the radio recently I was struck by an expression such people frequently use. The term was that a particular group of people had “a right to exist“.

This idea that opponents of a particular world-view somehow deny those who hold it a right to exist seems to be used a lot to suggest there is some sort of fundamental denial of basic human rights in opposing it. “Are you suggesting,” they will ask, “these people have no right to exist?” The suggestion is that, somehow, a fundamental human right, similar or even equivalent to the right to life itself, is being questioned, and that is either evil or absurd.

However, that expression, “right to exist” is, quite simply, wrong! It is what I, as a computer programmer, would call a Type Mismatch Error. I believe philosophers might call it a Category Error, but don’t quote me on that as I gave up philosophy after the first year because I found the lecturer too boring.

In computers, all data, whatever it represents, is stored and processed as numbers, but those numbers can mean different things: actual numbers, letters of the alphabet, strings of letters, codes of various kinds. It is therefore important to know what kind of data it is and how it can be processed depending on that type. Numbers can be calculated using arithmetic, but adding or subtracting other kinds of data which is stored as numbers might be meaningless. Take the sequence 1234/238-7, for instance. If those are numbers and arithmetic operators, the answer is -2 for integer arithmetic or -1.815... for floating point, so we need to know which kind of numbers they are. On the other hand, if it’s the part number for a pulley in a washing machine, there is nothing to calculate; it’s just a reference to identify the correct component. Integers, floating-point numbers, or strings (literal sequences of characters) are different types of data. Processing them as the wrong type is meaningless and therefore considered an error. Most computer languages will refuse to go on and come to an abrupt halt if that error is encountered. Those that don’t will reduce the data to gibberish.

The error in the expression “right to exist” is to confuse two different types of thought: the moral and the factual. Something either exists or it doesn’t. Whether it ought to exist is a separate question. Existence is a separate category from right and wrong. Something can exist which ought not to be so. Crime exists, but that does not make it right. Something else, like world peace, might not exist but be considered desirable. A concept might be true or false, but does not have a right to be true or false. Truth is truth and falsehood is falsehood, but is what is true necessary good, or what is false necessarily bad? This is often summed up in the simple sentence, “You can’t get an ought from an is (or an is from an ought).”

To illustrate the point (perhaps to labour it), if I decide one and one adds up to three, does it thereby add up to three? No, it doesn't, however much I want it to do so. It simply doesn’t. No amount of wishing or claiming it should add up to three will make it so. It just doesn’t and that’s all there is to say about it. A fact is a fact. Something is what it is, no more, no less. A particular thing might or might not exist. Whichever it is, that is just a simple fact. Claiming something exists won’t make it so, even if we claim it has a right to exist. Rights don’t come into it. It either exists or it doesn’t irrespective of any argument about whether it should. Introducing the language of rights might sound impressive but it’s an illusion which hides a hollow reality. It is actually meaningless, just like ordering part number -2 instead of 1234/238-7.

About the Author

K J Petrie has a Full Technological Certificate in Radio, TV and Electronics, an HNC in Digital Electronics and a BA(Hons) in Theological Studies.

His interests include Christian and societal unity, Diverse Diversity, and freedoms from want, from fear, of speech, and of association. He is a member of the Social Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are entirely personal and unconnected with any body to which he belongs.

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